But what has been done can’t be undone. My best friend is dead and I’m never going to be the same Travis Stephenson.
Trish Doller's remarkable debut, Something Like Normal, is one of those rare books that I recommend to nearly everyone. It's an important, timely novel--one that's lingered with me in the months since I read it.
Well before SLN was published (it's out on June 19), I found myself on seemingly every social media site insisting the everyone--absolutely everyone--read this novel about 19 year-old Marine Travis Stephenson, who's home on leave in Florida following a tour-of-duty in Afghanistan where his best friend, Charlie, dies before his eyes. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (a fact kept hidden from the Marines, as that would torpedo his military career), Travis finds himself feeling like and outsider in his own home and hometown.
As we head toward the beach I notice the differences in the landscape of the city. New businesses that weren’t there last year. Old businesses that are gone. It’s like a whole chunk of time has just … disappeared. The songs on the radio are different. The faces on the celebrity tabloids at the airport newsstand were people I didn’t recognize. There’s even a new American fucking Idol.
The Romance Early in SLN, Travis reconnects with a girl from his past, Harper, but Something Like Normal isn't another story of "girl saves troubled boy." This is a story of Travis saving himself and allowing people in his life to care about him, to help him. It's a story of Travis finding his path, and finding his own version of normal in the wake of a devastating loss. And it's ultimately a story of forgiveness and redemption.
Travis' and Harper's relationship is the backdrop for much of the story (though I have to reiterate that SLN is not about The Romance). It's beautifully crafted and feels very real.
Our eyes meet for a moment and I look for something. Anything. But then her gaze falls to her flip-flops with a shyness that kills me in the best possible way.
Also, Harper takes Travis turtle watching, which is just about the most romantic thing in life. (Seriously.)
The romance develops between the two in a believable, realistic way. Something Like Normal is categorized as young adult, but it most definitely doesn't contain any of the weird, unrealistic YA relationship development that's become so common (i.e., platonic sleeping WTFery, shivery kisses that never progress, artificial conflicts over ridiculous Big Misunderstandings). Harper and Travis' relationship grows and hits bumps in a heady, difficult way that actually makes sense for the place the two--both as individuals and as a couple--are at in life. In a word, it's refreshing.
The Comraderie One of the most striking elements in Something Like Normal is the tight friendships between Travis and his friends in the Marines--so much so that he's almost at a loss when that type of closeness doesn't exist within his own family.
Even so, shouldn’t it feel good to be with them again? Why do I feel closer to a group of guys I’ve known less than a year than I do my own family?
Their tight-knittedness is remarkable in that they're all so different, but they're (to state the obvious) bound together by the shared experience of their deployment, all isolated in a way from their previous "normal." For me, this was where much of the magic of Something Like Normal lies--in the familiar banter, the almost-mean teasing, the pranks, the bets,
"Solo, man, that was so not fair," Kevlar protests.
I snap the bill between my fingers. "I'd say it almost makes us even."
Moss laughs and fist-bumps me, and I feel the most normal I've felt since the day we got back from Afghanistan--except when I'm alone with Harper. These are my brothers. This is my family.
The Realism There were moments in which Something Like Normal make me a bit uncomfortable, quite frankly. Travis is a 19 year-old Marine and being in his headspace was a challenge at times. This isn't a criticism, it's actually a compliment. There's a moment early on in with Travis is thinking about his experiences in Afghanistan (Laura pointed this out to me and I ended up going back and re-reading that section) and Travis' narrow view on the country and people of Afghanistan is pretty jarring. But, at the same time, it felt real. If Travis had been super-enlightened and had incredibly nuanced thoughts on the subject, it would have read strangely.
The raw realism of Travis' thoughts are tough to read and the same goes for the language in the dialog between the Marines--both were often way out of my comfort zone.
But, I wouldn't want it Something Like Normal written any other way.
It's true. We say the most offensive stuff to each other.
Racist. Homophobic. Insulting each other's mom. Sometimes, every once in awhile, it leads to knock-down-roll-around-on-the-ground fistfights, but mostly we laugh because we don't mean it. Any one of us would take a bullet for the other.
One of my favorite aspects of the raw realism is SLN is the way in which Travis' PTSD is integrated into the story. I know that sounds strange, but it's important, because at no point does SLN devolve into an "issue book," yet at the Travis' PTSD is always there, bubbling under the surface, threatening his tenuous grasp on "normal." For example, while Travis is turtle-watching with Harper [swoon], his brain flips bank to Afghanistan, unable to stop himself from worrying about bombs hidden on the Florida beach,
Harper moves past me and I fight the urge to grab her arm and stop her, momentarily forgetting there are no bombs buried here. In Afghanistan, they could be anywhere. One time we were sweeping a road because we knew there was a bomb on it, but even with a metal detector we couldn't find it. We gave up, got in the truck, drove a little farther down the road, and hit the bomb we'd been looking for. None of us were hurt--just a little tossed around--but it messed up the truck. Even after my brain gets the memo that we are not going to blow up on Bonita Beach, I can't stop my eyes from scanning the sand for explosives.
"Is this a problem?" she asks.
For a moment I have to remember what we were talking about, but then I look up at her, the sea breeze lifting the stray hair around her face. "Nope, not a problem at all."
Even in this quiet moment, his experiences in the war creep into his psyche. Later, during that same night on the beach with Harper, Travis experiences an even more intense flashback when he hears a stick crack. It's these moments that made real for me what it must be like to be back home, back to normal, for men and women who've experienced war.
[Note: I deleted and added the following part of my review multiple times, because I always feel skeevy talking about myself in a book review. But, I believe that our reactions to what we read are deeply rooted in our own experiences, and I don't mine sharing my own, so in it stays.]
Something Like Normal thrust me back to my own experience, in which for years following 9/11 (I was living in Washington, DC during the terrorist attacks), when I'd hear low-flying airplanes (and even worse, military aircraft like what buzzed over the city for days after 9/11), my hands would start shaking and I'd panic. I'd then have to consciously work to force that panic out of my head, with varying degrees of success. It was the most awful feeling (and, honestly, sometimes still--because I live near an airport--it sneaks up on me when I hear low-flying aircraft).
Even with my relatively mild experience with post-traumatic stress, I feel confident in saying that Doller captured that "flipped switch" feeling masterfully in Something Like Normal. And, frankly, my own experience with panic is nothing--nothing--like what it must be like for people who've experienced war, seen friends--the people they're trying to protect--violently killed and been required to do things they'd never fathomed they'd have to do.
That's why I think that Something Like Normal is so special.
It brings home to anyone who takes the time to read it, and experience Travis' "new normal," something we'll never experience and does so in a relatable, compelling way. Travis isn't some remarkable guy (as much as I liked him)--instead, he's a guy we all know. He's someone who's easy to identify with, even if his experiences are far removed from our own. Travis joins the Marines because he doesn't really know what to do with his life and he discovers that it's a job that works for him--even though it's a really, really hard job.
I can think of many, many Travises I grew up with. Some joined the military, some went to community college, some got jobs. Travis could be my neighbor or yours. And yet, where I live (Portland, Oregon, which is very different from the small-town Oregon I'm from), guys like Travis who choose the military as their path are often dismissed, stereotyped and derided with sanctimonious bumper stickers.*
I'd love to put Something Like Normal in the hands of the adults in communities such as the one in which I live so they could understand that the guys (and girls) they lump together as "The Military" are people just like their friends and neighbors. I know this sounds dramatic and overwrought, but SLN really hit me with the uncomfortable feeling that in places like Portland it is common to dehumanize the real Travises with our language, attitude and assumptions.
[Stepping off my high horse now and returning to our regularly-scheduled programming.]
The other element that struck me in Something Like Normal is the sensitive transformation of Travis and his mother's relationship.
There's not a lot I can say about what transpires, because to do so would be tremendously spoilerific, but they begin to see one another as individuals, not just in the parent-kid context. Despite my voracious reading of contemporary YA, I don't see this a whole lot and I'd love to see more YA authors explore this theme.
I don’t know what to say to this. My mom is seeing a therapist? I run my hand over my head. “Hey, um, Mom, I’ve gotta go because we’re having breakfast with Charlie’s mom, but I wanted to tell you—” I don’t remember the last time I said the words. “I, um—” The line is silent for a moment as my mom waits for the words, but then she finishes it for me. “I love you, too, Travis.”
If I had to point to one thing that bothered me about SLN, it's that I didn't need the epilogue-like final chapter. By the penultimate chapter, I'd decided for myself what I though was going to happen in Travis' life, and what direction he was headed. It was nice to see that my assumptions were indeed correct, but my time with Travis could have just as easily ended without revisiting Travis. However, it also brings closure to the Travis-Charlie plot, so it serves an important purpose. So, my feelings remain mixed on that final piece of Travis' story. Regardless, that minor point in no way diminishes my enthusiastic declaration that Trish Doller's Something Like Normal is a "must-read" of 2012.
FNL Character Rating: Vince Howard. Vince's relationship with his team reminded me so much of Travis' relationship with his Marine buddies; Travis' redemptive storyline is very much akin to Vince's; and Travis' relationship with tough and smart Harper reminded me very much of Vince's challenging, and ultimately transformative, relationship with Jess. The easier choice would have been Luke Cafferty (given that Luke eventually opts for a military career), and Travis does share some of Luke's "Every Guy" qualities, but in terms of character arc, Travis and Vince are kindred spirits.
Something Like Normal releases on June 19, 2012 and is available for preorder now--and I highly recommend you do so.
*For real, y'all... the bumper stickers in this town. You have no idea.
A word (well, a lot of words) on the cover design.
I really believe that Bloomsbury did a massive disservice to to this marvelous book by going in the direction it did with this cover. By choosing the typical YA almost-make out cover, it limits SLN's audience. Teen boys would probably love the hell out of this book, but it looks like a teen romance--and you'd not guess in a bookstore that the narrator is a 19 year-old Marine. It also conveys the impression that the romance is a huge part of the story, and while it's very important, it isn't the story. This is Travis' story of loss and redemption.
Why not create a cover akin to the new U.S. edition of The Piper's Son?
This cover (while not as awesome as the Australian version) has universal appeal, not limiting its audience like the SLN cover does. It's on-trend in terms of YA, but it also conveys that there's a male narrator and wouldn't be a turn-off to adult readers either.
SLN's cover really, really bothers me, y'all. Like, probably more than it should a rational person--but I think that points to how much I care about this book. Please don't let SLN's completely wrong cover keep you from reading this book. It's one of my favorites in a long, long time.
Disclosure: I received a copy of SLN from the publisher via NetGalley. Additionally, the author is a friend of a friend (which I was unaware of at the time I read this book). Neither of these facts impacted my my honest review of this book. (less)
This book broke my heart over and over again... I'll try to remember to write a proper review, but this is far and away my favorite Maggie Stiefvater...moreThis book broke my heart over and over again... I'll try to remember to write a proper review, but this is far and away my favorite Maggie Stiefvater (and I'm a Maggie fan). Beautiful prose, fascinating characters, intriguing community, gripping plot that's never overwrought. Really different from anything I've read. Definitely a YA that you can give to adults who're anti-YA and not tell them it's for teens--they'd never guess it. Loved it, loved it. (less)
This is such a Sarah book, I just had to give it five stars. I have so much love for Wanderlove, it really captures that experience of traveling alone...moreThis is such a Sarah book, I just had to give it five stars. I have so much love for Wanderlove, it really captures that experience of traveling alone for the first time and made me so nostalgic for when I traveled to Ireland by myself when I was Bria's age. Travel can be so transformative, and it's not something you realize in the moment, which is so perfectly and subtly shown in this book. Love, love, love.
Thank you to my Awesome Subversive Book Club for picking this one!(less)
I love, love, love this novel. I mean, I loved A Little Wanting Song by the same, but Graffiti Moon, I adored. The story is simple, and short, about a...moreI love, love, love this novel. I mean, I loved A Little Wanting Song by the same, but Graffiti Moon, I adored. The story is simple, and short, about a single night after a group of teens have graduated from their last year of school, and it beautifully captures those nights that only happen when you're 16/17/18/19, when you stay out late and there's So Much Excitement. This is the type of book that's why I love reading YA. I can't say a lot about the plot, specifically, because it'll spoil it for you, so here's a rundown of Graffiti Moon's general awesomeness:
-Fabulous dialog. Funny, clever, fast and real. This is not your angsty, overwrought Dawson's Creek-style teen dialog. -The chapters from Ed's POV killed me! Killed me! He's perspective is just so tough--there's a lot happening in his life and seeing his reactions hit me in the gut. -The girls are funny and smart--yay! -Ed kind of reminded me of Tom Mackee from The Piper's Son, but also some of my favorite artistic male YA characters, like Adam from If I Stay/Where She Went and Seth from Freefall. This is a good thing. -The arts are a big part of the backdrop to this story: glass blowing, painting, poetry. Right On. -I love the gritty, urban backdrop of Graffiti Moon. It takes place in Melbourne, Australia, a place I've never been, but I felt like I was there while reading the book.
If you can track this one down, give it a read--it's a wonderful example of what's good in contemporary YA.
The following are a few of my favorite quotations from Graffiti Moon... (Possibly spoilerish--you've been warned.)(view spoiler)[
The yellow’s right. The green, too. The sky’s all wrong. I need the sort of blue that rips your inside out. You don’t see blue like that round here.
‘I think surfers are maybe her type,’ Dylan says. ‘You’re stuffed, then.’ ‘I could be a surfer if I tried.’ ‘Surfers don’t wear checked shirts and iron their jeans and shave twice a day.’ ‘I like to be neat.’ ‘And that’s fine. But you’ll never be a dude.’ ‘Dude’s a stupid word,’ he says. ‘Yes, it is,’ I tell him.
I’m not making a lot of sense but I keep going because her eyes are pinning me down. She knows now that I’m him, that I’ve lost my job. That I’m planning to rob the school later. She knows it all but she doesn’t know why. ‘In your head, Shadow was this great person and I’m nothing.’ Her eyes keep pinning me down. ‘I can barely even read.’
I look at that spot on her neck and make a few travel plans.
I missed him after he’d gone. I mean, it’s not like the tingle feeling stopped because he grabbed my arse. I spent the weekend after our date wishing I could stab him with my fluffy-duck pen and staring at the phone hoping he’d call. Dating is a very tricky business.
I told her he wasn’t who I thought he’d be. Mum stroked my hair and said, ‘Sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they make you vomit.’ This did not comfort me.
‘Where’s the fire, Lucy Dervish?’ Dad asks. In me. Under my skin. I figure I’ve got enough to give a little to Ed. I take off under a dark sky fading out and turning pink. I owe him some words.
I'm not even sure how to start a review of this Raw Blue--this is the kind of novel that makes me feel like I should start a book blog to tell the world about the amazing books they're missing (MIndi Scott's Freefall was another). Given that it was a tremendous pain in the ass to acquire this book, the bar had been set pretty pretty high--and it certainly met those standards, and will be permanently filed under "Awesome."
Why Raw Blue = Awesome
-This could be an "issue book," but this isn't at all. It's a novel of someone who's had a bad thing happen and is dealing with it in the best way she knows. -The juxtaposition between the bad stuff that happened to Ryan and the bad stuff that happened to Carly is extremely well done. She's letting the past eat away at her--he's moving on from it. -The surfing, oh the surfing. So freaking gorgeous Kirsty Eagar is a surfer and her love for the water and the sport shines. -The secondary characters! Especially Hannah (her half-crazy Dutch neighbor) and Danny (the 15-year old with a unique condition she meets surfing)! Love them so much. This quotation just says it all:
What did he say? You can’t always pick your friends. Well, he’s damn right there. I have two friends here: a fifteen year old who sees people in colours and a salsa-mad Dutch woman. I didn’t pick them, they just turned up in my life, and I’m really glad.
-Okay, Ryan is wonderful. I love that he's so open and that Carly (the narrator) is the elusive, mysterious one, bunking a common trope that drives me nuts. -Speaking of Ryan, this book is listed as YA (I think in Australia, they include up to early 20s main characters as YA), but it does not "fade to black" as most YA novels do. I'm going to be controversial and say this is a good thing. Sex happens and it's handled very well--more sensitively and appropriately than in most novels for adults. Frankly, this is the kind of thing that teens/young adults should read, in my opinion. -More on Ryan: Eagar could've written Ryan as slightly stalkerish, but he never ventures into that territory--I had a moment of panic 3/4 of the way into the book, thinking that'd be the direction he headed, but nope--no typical stalkerish YA male in sight!* -GAWD, the writing. I mean, THE WRITING. It's just so flipping good. First person, present tense can be a tough read, but not in Raw Blue. -There's actually not a ton of dialog in Raw Blue, which usually bugs me, but it makes sense--most of the action takes place in Carly's head. Yet, it never veers into the dreaded "telling not showing" territory. Like this is just perfect:
The whole time he’s been away I’ve been longing for him. Longing’s unbearable, something that can’t be endured but has to be. It’s the worst of all; I didn’t know that. It’s sweet and it kills at the same time, an ache eating away at your heart so that air gets in and you don’t know if what you feel is pain or pleasure.
-I'm sad Kirsty Eagar's next novel is a paranormal, because I love, love, love quality contemporary YA--and we desperately need more excellent contemporaries. I'm sure Saltwater Vampires is good, but geez, please, please, please, Ms. Eagar, please write more contemporary YA. -Dear Penguin: Please publish this more widely in the US than the Kobo store (who had a flipping Kobo?). Please--more people need to read it. And, please don't Americanize the Australian slang. xoxox, Sarah
*How sad is it that I assume boys will become stalkers in most YA novels? Can we just stop with that already? (less)
I'm probably the only person who liked this book more than If I Stay, but I had a hard time with the story of the hospital experience, because I've be...moreI'm probably the only person who liked this book more than If I Stay, but I had a hard time with the story of the hospital experience, because I've been there, done that. With that said, it was still all kinds of outstanding. If that makes sense... I also tend to have an affinity for books that take place in the aftermath of really bad stuff happening (ie, Freefall, Winter Longing, The Truth about Forever). Anyway, I didn't think this book needed a sequel, but I'm so glad it had one. Let's just say, about 85% into the book, I teared up and started sniffling and didn't stop until the last sentence.
Also, let's hear it for short books! I love that Gayle Forman writes succinct novels that make use of each word. It's so refreshing amongst so many doorstop-sized, purple prose-filled tomes. (less)
Absolutely beautiful character-driven novel. The book description doesn't do it justice at all. (This is one of my pet peeves, book descriptions that...moreAbsolutely beautiful character-driven novel. The book description doesn't do it justice at all. (This is one of my pet peeves, book descriptions that make good books sound typical.) I read this as part of the Contemps Challenge (I think this is the first of the 21 I've read) and I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise, but I'm glad I did. (I started and finished it on the same day, so that should say something...)(less)
Anyway...the end could have really used a couple extra chapters. It kind of feels like the publisher wanted to keep the bo...moreUm... I have some questions.
Anyway...the end could have really used a couple extra chapters. It kind of feels like the publisher wanted to keep the book under 400 pages, and so there are a few plot points that aren't allowed to develop naturally. I have to think about this some more.(less)